It has been three years since Ajay (14) was inside a classroom. Like other school-going children of his age he has a strict daily routine. He leaves his home in Krishna Colony, T-Camp in Delhi’s Uttam Nagar, at a quarter to ten every morning. He works at a lemon soda stall till eight in the evening. For his day’s labours, he gets paid Rs.150.
“I give whatever I earn to my mother,” Ajay says. His mother Rekha is a domestic worker. His father Mahesh is a construction worker. The family hails from a village near Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh’s Muradabad zilla. “I studied in a government school in my village until Class V,” recalls Ajay. “But the teacher beat me a lot and I didn’t want to go to school anymore.”
His family moved to Delhi three years ago. With that shift ended Ajay’s schooling. “No government school in Delhi would take me,” he says. And his family, too, was not inclined to stretch itself over his schooling.
Ajay is the oldest of six siblings. “Our household cannot run without at least two people working,” Ajay says. When his mother fell ill and could not go to work for some months, it was decided that he must start working, sealing his transition from school student to child labour.
Active involvement of the community, as mandated by the RTE Act, in auditing access to primary education could prevent cases like Ajay from recurring, point out RTE activists.
The case of Raju Mandal (10), a resident of Surat Nagar-II in Gurgaon, illustrates how migration can impact educational prospects. Raju was a student of Class III in a government school. In 2014, his father Dhananjay Mandal, a daily wager, took his family back to their native village in Malda for two months. When they came back to Gurgaon, the school refused to take Raju back. “His name was struck off the rolls,” says Dhananjay.
“Migrant workers go back to the village during harvest time, or when there is work in another site, or for some family event. They cannot afford to rent a place for their family when they are not in the city. So the entire family moves. Then the child’s schooling takes a hit,” says Dalip Singh of Grameen Vikas Samiti, who runs an informal learning centre. Raju is one of his students.
Clearly, in an age of mass (and circular) migration of labour, the provision of free hostel facilities for children of migrant workers would go a long way in bringing down drop-out rates.
Sabir Ali’s case is more complicated. “The school sent me home because I took too many holidays,” says the 15-year-old, who dropped out in 2013 from a Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya when he was in class VI.
What made him take so many holidays? “I used to keep Roza (fasting) from the morning. My classes were in the afternoon shift, and I found it tough to concentrate. So I would miss school.” Sabir says he asked his parents to transfer him to a morning shift school but they could not arrange it.
One day when Sabir went to school after missing nine consecutive days, his teacher sent him to meet the principal. The principal gave him some Hindi words to memorise and come back the next day for a test. Only if he passed would he be taken back. “When my father heard this, he said there was no way I could crack this test. He advised me to forget school and start working.” Sabir now works in a food stall selling kachoris. He makes Rs.150 a day.
If Sabir or his parents had received the right inputs and support, it is possible that he might still be in school. “I did not know enough when I missed school,” says the teenager, admitting that he feels a sense of loss when he hears his friend and former classmate talk feverishly about an impending exam. “If I get a chance to study again, I would put my heart into it,” he says, before hurrying off. He is needed at the kachori stall.
This is the first in The Hindu’s seven-part series on the crisis in India's primary education.